Maggie Simpson explains why rail continues to be an attractive option for container traffic

Intermodal rail volumes in the UK continue to increase. Successive quarters of growth mean that railbourne containers are now at the highest level recorded since the start of the Office of Rail & Road (ORR) time-series in 1998-99.

This is a reflection of the growth in containerised traffic, but mostly in rail increasing its market share from the major ports and retailers. Indeed, rail is now moving one in every four containers that come into the country.

As a demonstration of this success, the Port of Felixstowe announced it had become the first port in the UK to handle 1m TEU by rail in a year, when it loaded a container onto the 13.34 Freightliner service to Birmingham in December 2017.

The port says the record is the result the dedication of the workforce and the excellent relationships it has developed with all the rail freight operators. This is an especially impressive performance considering the capacity constraints on the rail links into and out of the port – it is a single-track railway.

A total of 66 freight train movements a day at Port of Felixstowe make it the UK’s busiest intermodal rail freight terminal. As well as Freightliner, GB Railfreight and DB Cargo offer services to a range of destinations from Glasgow to Bristol. Network Rail is now working to upgrade the branch line to the port to enable further trains to run in future, meeting the growing demand of port customers.

Other ports are also keen to exploit the benefits of rail, with Port of Southampton and London Gateway growing their rail services. In the north of England, both Teesport and Port of Liverpool have recently launched intermodal services to the Scottish central belt, and the routes to Immingham are being upgraded to enable higher gauge intermodal trains to run.

Services from ports rely of course on good inland terminals across the country. The launch of the first service into the newly-opened iPort Rail inland port in Rossington, Doncaster in September is another indication of the success of intermodal traffic. The service between iPort and the Port of Southampton now runs five days a week operated by GBrF.

This new £14m 30 acre facility, with 36 platforms, provides a state-of-the-art rail freight hub able to accommodate the UK’s longest trains up to six times a day, six days a week. It currently has storage for 1500 TEU storage containers, plus room for expansion, with each of the reach stackers on site able to lift up to 115 tonnes.

Connected via the South Yorkshire Joint Freight Line direct to the East Coast Main Line and the UK national rail network, it has been designed to meet Channel Tunnel (SACTFF) approved secure facility standards for international (cross Channel) movements.

Overall International rail freight also continues on a general upward trend, admittedly from a small base, perhaps reflecting a growing confidence in the security situation on the French side of the Channel Tunnel.

Intermodal is also growing on the Continent, although is hampered by huge variations between countries in terms of regulations and implementation of measures designed to increase competition. And, Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc’s reminder to the European rail freight sector that ‘rail accounts for 73 per cent of European transport funding but accounts for under 12 per cent of modal share’ is a reminder to the industry and member states, that subsidies are always under review.

The movement of containers by rail between China and Europe is one of the more high-profile traffics and a growing success story. The Transport Coordinating Committee of China Railway Corporation’s (CRC) China-Europe project has announced that since 2011, there has been a total of 6235 freight journeys across 57 routes. The New Silk Road’s international cross-border rail network has connected 35 Chinese cities with 34 European destinations.

The rate of growth is increasing as well, with almost half – 3200 trips – undertaken during 2017 alone. And, the good news for us was that the UK was added to the list of destinations for the first time.

The CRC is predicting that the number of journeys is expected to reach 4000 this year and that it will focus on “raising the efficiency and profits and lowering the empty-loading ratio next year”. Colleagues in the UK are working to help build the market both for inbound and outbound traffic to support the development of future trains between China and the UK.

These developments give confidence in the ongoing strength of intermodal rail in the UK, and with new projects in development and strong customer interest there is every reason for this growth to continue.

Maggie Simpson is Executive Director of Rail Freight Group (RFG). The Rail Freight Group (RFG) has been the UK’s leading rail freight trade association since its formation in 1990. It has more than 120 corporate members active in all sectors of rail freight from ports, terminal operators, customers, through to operators and suppliers.